Saturday, May 4, 2013

Hot Docs 2013: Reviews #9

Reviews of screenings from the 2013 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, Toronto, Canada.

The Last Station (Dir: Catalina Vergara/Cristian Soto, 90 minutes, Chile/Germany)

This patiently-observant view of life in a Chilean nursing home attempts to relate the loneliness and emptiness that the residents face on a daily basis — but also the simple beauty that can be found at any stage of life. As the film opens and we see a new resident being dropped off, we get a feeling for the immeasurable space between people, a gulf that doesn't narrow even in the final years. Throughout, we see how faith functions in the constant presence of death — but also the small ways that the residents rage against the dying of the light.

The visual compositions are sometimes quite wilfully dim, which might be for poetic effect but is often simply annoying. Featuring long, wide shots from an unmoving camera, its pace is as measured as that of the home's residents — everything moves in that slow, shuffle-along way. It's all lentamente enough that a shot of a snail inching its way up a tree fits right in.

Many of the scenes are wordless as we observe the residents go about their days. One man works his way through his address book, finding which phone numbers haven't been disconnected yet. Another has a penchant for slowly dragging a chair across the yard so he can slowly and meticulously gather up all the fallen leaves on the lawn. A third clacks away at a typewriter, one letter at a time.

We also catch occasional glimpses of children at play in the schoolyard next door, one of several rather obvious metaphors that get tossed around here. In other scenes, we see old trees being pruned and felled and new ones being planted.

There are some striking similarities to La Belle Visite, a similarly measured look at life in a Gaspé nursing home, which played Hot Docs in 2010. The key difference here (and the film's main throughline, inasmuch as it has one) is Father Hurtado, who serves as the voice of the residence's "radio" station, making death announcements and occasionally railing against families that leave their relatives to languish here alone. ("Do they lose us here, or do they throw us away?")

But he also works to transport the residents away, at least in their imaginations, as he plays them field recordings of nature scenes: wind through leaves, waves on a shoreline. A few times we cut from him playing his recordings to see him making them, and it gives a sense of how powerfully transporting they could be. It also sets up the film's final shot, a beautiful image that's so powerful, it almost overpowers the accumulated misery with a blast of pure bliss.

It's hard to say if the film is a success or a failure — there's a fine line between "still" and "dull", and this is shuffling along that boundary all along. In theory, this should work for anyone prepared to embrace its stillness, but it can still test an audience's patience — I was pretty sure I knew what I was getting myself into here, but I still found it to drag in places.

The Devil’s Lair (Dir: Riaan Hendricks, 86 minutes, South Africa)

At the broadest level, this is a story about a guy tring to achieve work-life balance in the Cape Flats outside of Cape Town, South Africa. The "work" here, however, is on the other side of the law, and we observe Braaim in his dual roles of doting paterfamilias and ruthless gang leader.

Membership in the small NTK gang (which can stand for "Nice Time Kids" or "Nice to Kill" as required) is a heavy commitment, as we learn from Braaim as we watch him initiate (and tattoo) a new member. Trafficking in meth, heroin and mandraax, Braaim is not a hands-off manager, and we see him cutting product for distribution as well as entertaining "clients". (NTK, it appears, does not follow that old gang rule about not getting high on your own supply.)

We get a sense of the power dynamics at play in Braaim's gang — and more fascinatingly, at home, where his wife constantly frets over whether she should remain, and is not entirely supportive when Braaim is wounded in a shootout. If the film's purpose is to show that gang life is more tawdry and dull than glamourous, that's certainly achieved here. For a film with scenes of drug-taking and killings being planned, it's actually pretty quiet and banal. Despite all the big talk, it doesn't seem like a lot actually happens, and the lack of action is beefed-up with an over-the-top "here's what to feel" musical score.

We stick so closely to the film's main locations that we don't really get any sort of feel of the dangerous life in the Cape Flats. We are told that it has one of the highest murder rates in the world, but all we really see of it is a couple shots of empty streets. Although there's an amazing amount of trust and access here, it's so contained that it feels like a two-set play, alternating between "home" and "work". For all the potential strengths here, this is surprisingly unengaging. Not recommended.

Picture of Light (Dir: Peter Mettler, 1994, 83 minutes, Canada)

One of his more popular films closed out the "Focus On Peter Mettler" retrospective to a full house. This film is a celebration of the North's beauty in several forms, from the sculpted elegance of snowdrifts and powerful white-out blizzard winds to the mysterious Northern Lights. Those are the cause of the journey, after a challenge is made to try and capture their illusive beauty. Alternating between a scientific quest and a poetic one, this film presents some of Mettler's ongoing metaphysical concerns in a fairly approachable manner.

An excursion to the space shuttle (which is also observing the aurora) fills in the factual background, but also serves as a metaphor for the distance required to get to Churchill, Manitoba as we see the train hurling through the void, only the single track laid out before it, NASA control chattering away in the background. That's one unusual overlapping we get on this trip north in the shadow of the first Gulf War. (That would be another of a few real-world interruptions that nudge their way into the frame.)

Waiting around for the right weather to film the aurora, there is time for a few tangents. We hear some stories from the townsfolk, including the lore of the northern lights, and as boredom sets in, we get a few other whimsical diversions. Poised at the border between civilization and the "true north", we see some uncanny images in the infinite drifting snow plains, including a ghostly rusted-out ship, imprisoned in ice and long abandoned.

Mettler's narration shifts everything into the realm of mythopoetic razzmatazz, and as the film inches along, it slowly feels out its themes. Key among those is a constant meditation on the act of mediation — how is a recorded artifact different than seeing something in person? Here, that gap is enhanced, as the auroras (recorded with long-exposure cameras) are rarely shown in "real time".

The technical efforts pay off and we are presented with the results: night-long shots compressed into seconds, the stars moving in their stately arcs as the luminescent gauze curtains of the northern lights dance in front of them. No words are required here, and Mettler is wisely silent as the pictures hint at some powerful truth that he cannot encapsulate.

And in the end, we are left with those lingering beautiful images — and for anyone who has seen the northern lights in person, a sharpened sense of their uncapturability, as this is still only a small fraction of what it's like to really see them.

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